Most fans probably don't know Stephen Rhodes—or, at least, they didn't before Friday.
The late model racer who made two starts in the Camping World Truck Series in 2003, is looking to return to the series full-time in 2014, thus becoming the first openly gay driver to compete full-time in one of NASCAR's national touring divisions.
In a segment for NASCAR Race Hub, as quoted by FoxSports.com, Rhodes discussed his second chance at racing and what he expects from the fans:
I don't think going into a sport - having to face the ones that either like me or don't like me - is anything any different than I live any day. I live in the South. I know that NASCAR has a conservative, Southern fan base, and I'm not going to try and change anyone's minds and their opinions. They're either going to like me or going to hate me. That's just life in general, really.
It didn't take long for fans to take to Twitter to express their opinions. Many fans support Rhodes in his second attempt at living his dream:
Black, white. Foreign , man woman gay or straight who the hell cares all that matters is can they drive. Enough said #NASCAR— BrianMorrow (@BmRaceJunkie) July 18, 2013
But there were some who felt that a gay driver has no place in NASCAR:
@NASCAR if YALL allow a gay DRIVER IN you can consider this 25 year fan OUT!!! DALE EARNHARDT WOULD TURN IN HIS GRAVE!— SNAKEMAN (@harden_matt) July 18, 2013
You cant be gay and in nascar!!! It doesnt work— Erik Richards (@bildgewookie) July 17, 2013
Opinions like these are exactly the kind of thing that the sport is trying to avoid in its quest for mainstream acceptance.
No matter how hard it has tried in the past, many in the country still look at NASCAR as a niche sport born in the segregated South. It's wrong, but in the eyes of the general public, these are the opinions of the stereotypical NASCAR fan.
For its part, the sanctioning body issued a statement in support of Rhodes, per FoxSports.com:
NASCAR is a community made up of people from every walk of life. Our employees - regardless of their race, age, national origin, gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, faith or physical abilities - do an outstanding job of helping to bring the best racing in the world to our fans every week and that is what matters. It's a stated goal for our sport to reflect America's diversity. Exclusion or intolerance of any kind - whether behind the wheel, on pit road, or in the garage - is not part of that philosophy.
Strides have been made to change that public perception. Thanks in part to NASCAR's Drive for Diversity initiative, the sport is more diverse than at any other time in its existence.
Aric Almirola, an American driver of Cuban descent, and Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya have fared well in representing Latin America. Danica Patrick is competing in her first full season of Sprint Cup competition this year, the first woman to do so in the sport's history. And Darrell Wallace Jr., an African American who was part of the diversity program, is now a Joe Gibbs Racing development driver competing for the Truck Series championship this year.
But the reaction to Stephen Rhodes shows that there is still a lot of work to do.
The comments section of the FoxSports.com article is filled with fans who are using Rhodes' sexuality to make fun of other drivers. Individuals can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet, but their jokes reflect poorly on the sport they love.
Hopefully, Rhodes succeeds in his quest to return to the sport, but there are no guarantees. He still needs to find sponsorship for a full season. Even the best drivers in the sport have struggled with that in recent years.
Making it to the top of the NASCAR ladder is tough for any driver, but in the Race Hub piece, Rhodes said that all he is asking for is fairness.
"I would like people to know, just because we have a different preference and lifestyle, that we're no different from anyone else," he said. "We deserve fairness. We're just everyday people."
Racing is the great equalizer, a sport in which everyone competes on an equal playing field regardless of age, gender or race. A driver's sexual orientation shouldn't be a factor either.